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My 4-year-old was "trying" to do a thumbs-up at his grandma's birthday dinner. He was sticking up every individual finger but his thumb, until, before he could be stopped, he was proudly showing his middle finger to the whole dinner party.
A funny game?
The table erupted in laughter as I stifled my own giggles and told my son very seriously, "No, it's not funny. It's just a finger." We all moved on and the offending finger didn't make another appearance. A few days later, however, his preschool teacher approached my husband in the pick-up line, and wanted us to know that our son had been showing other students his middle finger and laughing about it. I was horrified. We do not curse or use profane gestures in our house, and though my son had no clue what that finger meant, this behavior was anything but funny.
Being left out
There are several reasons why cursing is not allowed at our house, but Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, points out a major one. "Recently, I treated a family where the parents, in their late 30s or early 40s, have the perspective, 'No big deal! So, a little cursing between the parents?... No problem.' Their 4-year-old child has been mimicking that, and he's getting in trouble at preschool, not being invited on play dates, parents are saying, 'we don't want our kids playing with him,' and when the parents brought him into my office for the first therapy session, instead of saying, 'Hello, Dr., Fran,' he said, 'Hello, Dr. F***.'" Yikes! Not only was this child's cursing rude, it was affecting his relationships. This is why, even if foul language doesn't bother you, you might consider how other parents might feel and react to swearing around their kids.
How to set healthy boundaries
But Dr. Fran says it's not just about profanity, it's about boundaries. Setting and respecting reasonable boundaries will help children understand what is and is not appropriate behavior.
Here are her tips to accomplish just that:
- Have straight talk with your preschooler, and be sure to inject a "supportive coach" tone and attitude into your words and body language. "Everybody wants to have friends, and even though the kids may laugh at you, their moms and dads are not going to let them invite you to their birthday party if you use that word/finger." Take care not to scold or control, unless you want to invite a power struggle… you don't.
- Give him an appropriate alternative: "Here's what you can do when you want your friends to laugh. Tell a funny story. Ask them to play a game. Make a silly face." Ask your child to help you brainstorm a solution in order to empower him. My husband immediately, and very wisely, started showing our son all manner of benign hand gestures he could use in place of that one. "Peace Sign," "Rock Fist" and "Call Me/Hang Ten," are all flashed with regularity now.
- If he continues the behavior, set and stick with your boundaries. Calmly and with empathy, say to your child, "I guess if you still want to play the cursing game, you can do it alone in your bedroom." Be sure you follow through. Clearly, without anger, put your arm around your child's shoulder, walk him to his bedroom, and say, "When you're finished using that word/finger, you can come out with us where we want you to be."
Parents set the tone
The reward for behaving appropriately is to be out with the rest of the family where we want him. This is boundary setting. It communicates to your child that certain behaviors are just not appropriate in front of other people. A hugely important lesson to learn early on. Of course, for these boundaries to mean anything at all, the adults shouldn't violate them either.
Parenting, education and psychology expert Natasha R.W. Eldridge, M.A., says parents set the standard of behavior. "Children typically model the behavior of the people they adore most. Both our verbal and nonverbal expressions make lasting impressions amongst children. Parents can prevent children from cursing by not cursing in front of their children. A household free of profanity teaches the child that bad language is not in alignment with the values of the entire household."
Ditch the drama
Children are built to test boundaries as they gain more and more independence. Their use of shocking language and behavior will only be more frequent if you reward them with a dramatic reaction. So stay calm and gently guide them toward more socially acceptable means of expression, and you may be steering your child away from a lonely road.